August 12, 2015 by Lyn
Let me enlighten you…
The small dining hall seemed louder every time Kailani entered it, but less chaotic, too, as returning students reasserted established patterns and new students came to their own equilibrium.
She had found her place already, or, rather, Taro had found it for her. That first dinner, he had sat her to his left, with the enigmatic explanation of “it won’t mean what they think it means, but it will keep them from bothering you too much.” He’d seemed to expect her to sit there again at breakfast and lunch, and she had, enjoying the novel feeling of having her company sought after.
His friends – four other returning students, all but one of them guys – had been offhandedly friendly, but they’d been doing their own little game of musical chairs, clearly assuming she – and Taro – didn’t notice. Taro might not have – he certainly didn’t acknowledge the dance at all, so Kai pretended she didn’t notice, either.
As she came into the hall for dinner, Taro was sitting alone at their table, in the center chair of one three-chair side. He twisted to watch her sit down – on his left, of course – and smiled his rather attractive half-smile at her.
“Hey,” he said warmly, “how’d it go, your first day?”
She smiled brightly. “The classes were actually a little hard. I wasn’t sure how the Calculus class was going to go, since I already took calc, but it’s a lot more challenging than it was at my last school…”
She trailed off as she realized he was looking at her oddly. “What?”
He shook his head, smiling again. “Nothing. You’re just cute, is all.”
“Cute?” She frowned lightly at him.
“Yeah. And the way you wrinkle your nose when you frown at me is cute, too.”
She blinked at him, trying to remember if she’d ever been called “cute” before, but was saved from having to respond by the arrival of two of Taro’s friends, laughing and shoving each other as they both slid into the same chair across from her.
Conrad, tawny-haired, with freckles across the top of his once-broken nose, got a better grip on the chair, and, with a judicious twitch, shoved Vladimir onto the floor. Vlad, looking none the worse for wear, grinned mischievously and bowed over the table. He took Kailani’s hand in his, and kissed it lightly. “Good evening, Kailani.”
She smiled widely. “Good evening, Vladimir. Conrad.” She nodded to Conrad politely, and smiled a little more at how his grin faltered for just a second before he replaced it.
“Hey, Taro.” The voice, female, unfamiliar, and self-assured, came from the other end of the table. She turned to look, and saw a sultry girl, dark-haired and copper-skinned, slide into the seat to Taro’s right. “Saved my seat for me, I see.”
Taro’s expression darkened, and, when he spoke, he sounded like someone entirely different – older; he sounded almost like a war veteran. “Megan. Pick another seat.”
She mock-sulked at him. “But this is my seat, Taro. Right here, to your right.” She patted the back of the chair firmly.
“That was last year, Megan. Move.” Kai shivered at the cold firmness in Taro’s voice, but Megan seemed unperturbed.
“But you left it empty, Taro.” There was clearly something going on beyond seating arrangements, but Kai couldn’t get a proper feel for the pattern yet.
“Megan. Move.” There was a finality in his voice, but this interloper seemed to ignore it. She grinned at him.
“Carrig is doing well. He…”
He moved so quickly that he was back in his seat before anyone could react; with the heel of his hand he shoved Megan away and out of the chair. She landed a good ten feet away, the look on her face a strange mix of anger and fear.
“Leave.” His voice seemed to echo across the dining hall, and Megan’s expression settled into fear. She crab-walked backwards for a few feet before pulling herself to her feet, and fled, staring over her shoulder at Taro until she was out of the hall.
The door slammed behind her, and, slowly, the noise resumed its normal levels. Taro breathed very carefully for several heartbeats, then smiled gently at Kai. With very deliberate movements, he moved into the seat Megan had just been evicted from, and patted the chair next to him. Without a word – not certain what words would be appropriate – she moved where he pointed.
“Sweet!” Conrad, grinning, claimed the seat to her left; Vlad smirked silently – her move had placed him across the table from her.
Kai shook her head at them. She was convinced they were doing it as much to agitate Taro as out of any real desire to sit next to her – just sort of a game, mocking or playing off of the strange undercurrents about seating arrangements the returning students seemed to follow. It didn’t seem to be working, though; Taro just smiled and dropped his arm onto her shoulders.
“We just saw Megan leaving.” Cassidy and Mabina, the last two members of their table, flopped down in the chairs to either side of Vlad, Mabina playfully dropping her arm over Vlad’s shoulders to mirror Taro. “She didn’t look happy.” There was the suggestion of a subtext in the way Cassidy looked at Taro when he said that, but the language was still foreign to Kai.
“She found a chilly reception,” Conrad explained, chuckling.
“Or maybe a little too heated,” Vlad countered.
“I don’t remember seeing her around,” Kai commented, the thought coming into words as it occurred to her – and she didn’t. That in itself was odd – with a population as small as Addergoole’s, she’d seen everyone at least four or five times in the day since she arrived.
“She ‘graduated’ last year,” Taro explained tersely, making air-quotes with his fingers around “graduated.”
“Then…?” She trailed off, not sure how to ask the next question. Addergoole didn’t seem the place for casual visitors, but “What was she doing here?” seemed both obvious and rude. Taro clearly knew her, as did the rest of his friends.
“Her mother’s a teacher here,” Mabina explained, “so she lives just outside the facility with her mom.”
“Ms. Pelletier,” Vlad provided, “the sciences teacher.”
Kai thought about that for a moment, bringing the rather severe woman who’d taught her chemistry class to mind and comparing her with her mental image of Megan. Yes, there was a family resemblance, although Megan wore a much lusher version of the same features, and had darker skin.
“Her mom pretty much spoils her,” Mabina continued, “lets her get away with murder.”
“Can we talk about something else?” Taro asked. His hand was clenching the table, white-knuckled.
“Sorry, dear.” Mabina ducked her head, unsmiling. Cassidy dove into a long and rather absurd story about something that had happened over the summer, and they all managed to drop the subject of Megan.
Late that evening, Taro had gone off with Vlad and Cassidy to play poker, leaving her to her own devices, so Kai had settled herself into a corner of the lounge, watching the interactions of the other students. Conrad plopped himself down in a chair next to her and leaned over to her.
“I can tell some of the weirder stuff is beginning to irritate you,” he murmured, his characteristic grin still making his nose wrinkle just under the line of freckles.
“Not exactly irritate. It’s more like a cipher one just can’t figure out the key for.”
He nodded in understanding. “Pretty much. Well, I think I could give you a Rosetta Stone… but it would take a couple hours. Are you up to it?”
It took hardly any thought. “Of course.”
“Would Friday evening work for you? Taro will be off on his poker game night again…”
Two nights seemed like a horribly long time away, but she could be patient. She nodded.
“Great!” He hopped up – he always seemed to be brimming over with energy – and vanished down the hall.